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JOHNNY MAD DOG by Emmanuel Dongala


by Emmanuel Dongala & translated by Maria Louise Ascher

Pub Date: May 5th, 2005
ISBN: 0-374-17995-6
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The native Congolese author, now Massachusetts-based, writes of civil war and its attendant atrocities.

Unlike Dongala's subtly woven The Fire of Origins (2002) and Little Boys Come from the Stars (2001), his latest offers a simplistic contrast of innocence with rampant amorality. It’s set in an unnamed West African nation where forces representing the Mayi-Dogo and Dogo-Mayi tribes struggle to annihilate one another, aided by mercenaries from various countries, though the fighting is entrusted largely to laxly trained “militias” whose main “political” objectives are rape and looting. One such force, the Mata-Matas (aka “Roaring Tigers”), flounders under the leadership of strutting thug General Giap, who has inexplicably delegated major responsibilities to the eponymous Johnny, a teenaged brute who assumes several resonant noms de guerre before settling on “Mad Dog,” and who narrates his murderous misadventures in vainglorious accents, all the while assuring us that he’s an unparalleled intellectual, heroic freedom fighter and sexual athlete. Mad Dog’s narrative is juxtaposed with that of Laokolé, a valiant 16-year-old refugee who flees the carnage with her multiple amputee “Mama” and younger brother Fofo. She (a would-be engineer) is the “intellectual” that Johnny claims to be—and it becomes apparent that Dongala is setting the two on a collision course, as Laokolé finds temporary sanctuary in a U.N. embassy building, loses all her loved ones and finally reaches an embattled village, where (in a painfully unconvincing climactic scene) she and Mad Dog face off, lethal violence ensues and, as their country smolders, the stars overhead wheel silently and indifferently in their courses.

One respects this earnest tale's passion and indignation, but little else. Johnny is a posturing monster, Laokolé a stoical saint, and every action and thought of each is reduced to melodramatic cliché. The result is an all-too-credible horror story, but not a good novel.